Image credit: Matatag Community Pantry

Community pantries as everyday socialism

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, almost 4.5 million citizens lost their jobs in 2020, which translates to around 10.3 unemployment rate, the highest in fifteen years. Beyond these cold statistics, many stories went viral on social media about patients unable to secure admission in hospitals due to limited resources, and about families unable to satisfy their daily needs. Amid this chaos, citizens are devising ways to aid each other.

The spread of community pantries is one of the latest stories to catch the attention of both the public and the media. Accompanied by banners encouraging people to give what they can and take what they need, these community projects offer simple yet powerful ideas. Carts are stationed in strategic locations where other citizens can drop donations and take what they need. Contact details relevant to HIV testing, medical services, and domestic violence reporting are also displayed alongside food, sanitary supplies, face masks, and medicine.

Image credit: Matatag Community Pantry

Furniture business owner Ana Patricia Non is credited with starting the first known cart along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, Philippines. In several interviews, she asserted that these pantries are “not charity but mutual aid”. Beyond the fact that such initiatives already serve thousands, the moral logic of these pantries is just as impactful. “Giving what you can and taking what you need” is reminiscent of a popular cliché in many progressive movements, “to each according to our abilities, to each according to our needs”. The simple idea of socialism is to equitably distribute duties and wealth so that every citizen can contribute to, and benefit from, the collective.

Framing these pantries as ‘mutual aid’ distances them from high-brow charity events that venerate the benevolence of the wealthy, and from the typical display of power exhibited through over-sized photos of politicians to mark government projects. Instead of treating aid as a symbol of good fortune or a currency of power, these pantries stress our collective responsibility. We should help not to reinforce our privileges. We must help, simply, because it is our rightful duty. And we need not be revered for it. This reminds me of many hunter- gatherer societies where catching the largest game is not honored at the expense of other contributions. Members understand that contributing to the collective is a duty and that no contribution is inherently more valuable than another.

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Aside from critiquing state inefficiency, I think community pantries are telling us something more ideological. These projects are initiated by ordinary citizens whose primary goal is to help others. This illustrates that the seeds to fight for a fairer society already exist in some currently held beliefs. As Gramsci puts it, there is a grain of truth in common sense. This is not to say that these pantries already indicate long-overdue reforms in Philippine politics. Politicians might even coopt these carts to expand their power bases. For instance, while the conditional cash transfer programme sought to provide aid to the poorest of the poor, some local politicians instrumentalise it to expand their patronage networks.

In their current form, community pantries force us to reimagine our understanding of welfare. Implementing social services programs is not enough. It is equally crucial that the moral logic of such programs does not reinforce hierarchies.

For instance, the Philippines legislated free tuition in state universities in 2017. Several officials and regime supporters used this same law to discount activism. It is not uncommon for Filipino student activists to be asked the question, “why do you criticize the government that pays for your education?”

These words reek patronage because they frame free/subsidised education as a gift for which students should be thankful, rather than the state’s obligation. Hence, we must replicate not only practices of community pantries but also the moral logic that underlies them. Creating a fairer society not only entails socialised policies but also requires a moral understanding that welfare is a duty and not a tool of domination.

Socialism is not just a political conviction that has stimulated revolutions throughout world history. To me, it is also a moral commitment that animates mundane acts of service. Those who despise progressive ideas exaggerate socialist values as radically violent and too idealistic. This stereotype obscures not only the core notion that nobody should be too poor to live but also the importance of everyday interactions in defying systems of oppression. The values of sharing, equitability, and transcending hierarchies exist in currently known collective thoughts. They are not farfetched because not only do we know and cherish them. But we also practice them.

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